Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law

Month Day
July 26

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most sweeping affirmation of rights for the disabled in American history at the time, into law.

As disability rights attorney Arlene Mayerson would later write, the story of the ADA began “when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them from their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children.” Activists explicitly compared their struggle to the Civil Rights movement, arguing that without federal requirements in place, the disabled faced discrimination both as patrons of public spaces and businesses and in seeking employment. In 1986, the National Council on Disability, an independent government agency, issued a report that reached the same conclusion, highlighting the many gaps in federal law that made full participation in society and equal opportunities for employment impossible for many disabled Americans.

Thanks largely to the lobbying efforts of Patrisha Wright, cofounder of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, federal legislation similar to a version of the Civil Rights Act for the disabled gained support in the late 80s. The eventual bill, the ADA, covered a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. The bulk of the act provides legal recourse against employers who discriminate against the disabled and set standards of access to public buildings and public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, etc.). It also established federal laws regarding service animals, among other things. 

In March of 1990, a group of disability rights activists staged the Capitol Crawl, in which disabled people pulled themselves up all 100 steps of the Capitol building in order to highlight the nation’s lack of accessibility. Despite pressure from some church groups, who felt the ADA unfairly burdened them, the bill passed the House by unanimous voice vote and the Senate 76-6, paving the way for its signing on July 26 by President Bush, who said, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

READ MORE: When the ‘Capitol Crawl’ Dramatized the Need for Americans with Disabilities Act


George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as “axis of evil”

On January 29, 2002, in his first State of the Union address since the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush describes Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

Just over a year into his presidency and several months into a war which would eventually become the longest in American history, Bush identified the three countries as the major nodes of a wide-ranging and highly dangerous network of terrorists and other bad actors threatening the United States. The speech outlined the logic behind Bush’s “War on Terror,” a series of military engagements which would define U.S. foreign policy for the next two decades.

Bush speechwriter David Frum is credited with coining the term “axis of evil,” which was meant to evoke the Axis powers against which the United States and its allies fought in World War II. The Bush administration wanted to emphasize the outstanding threat posed by these three “terror states,” arguing that each was in the process of building weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, had invaded Iraq in 1990 after repelling the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait, but left Saddam Hussein in power. 

After 9/11, George W. Bush’s administration waited less than a month before invading Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban regime there. It was not long before Bush turned his attention to “regime change” in Iraq. Although there were no direct links between Iraq, Iran and North Korea—Iraq and Iran, in fact, were commonly understood to be geopolitical enemies—the concept of an “axis of evil” united in its desire to harm Americans proved useful to those making the case for a second invasion of Iraq.

READ MORE: A Timeline of the U.S.-Led War on Terror


Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks at UN, justifies US invasion of Iraq

Month Day
February 05

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gives a speech to the United Nations that is both highly consequential and full of fabrications on February 5, 2003. Using talking points that many within his own government had told him were either misleading or outright lies, Powell outlined the United States’ case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, making the argument for the invasion that would happen the following month. Powell has called it a “blot” on his record.

President George W. Bush‘s administration contained several prominent officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who had advocated for the First Gulf War and were known proponents of a second invasion of Iraq. Soon after a group of mostly-Saudi terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a movement began within the Bush administration to remove Iraq’s leader, the dictator Saddam Hussein, from power, on the grounds that he was connected to the attacks. Powell was not among this clique—according to him, he warned Bush in August of 2002 that removing Hussein might be easy but turning Iraq into a stable, friendly democracy would not be. At Powell’s urging, Bush took his case to the United Nations, leading to the decision to send inspectors into the country to search for “weapons of mass destruction.” The inspectors found no proof of such weapons, but Congress nonetheless authorized Bush to use military force against Iraq in October of 2002. According to Powell, Bush had already decided to do so before sending Powell to the UN.

Powell claimed he was delivering “facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence” as he told the UN that Iraq possessed biological weapons. He knew this to be a lie. He had reportedly received the text of the speech four days before it was to be given, during which time the State Department’s intelligence bureau had raised a host of red flags. Powell’s employees had identified many key claims as “weak,” “not credible,” or “highly questionable.” Among these questionable assertions were the claims that Iraqi officials had ordered biological weapons removed ahead of UN searches, that Iraq’s conventional missiles appeared fit to carry chemical weapons, and that Hussein possessed mobile labs capable of producing anthrax and other toxins. The speech cherry-picked testimony from various Iraqi sources, omitting that Hussein’s son-in-law, who had been in charge of Iraq’s WMD program before defecting in 1995, had testified that Iraq had destroyed all of its chemical weapons after the First Gulf War.

Powell’s speech may not have launched the invasion, which began in March, but it justified it to the American public and provided cover for the U.S. with the international community. Though the UN maintained that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, the Bush administration and allies like Tony Blair’s government in Britain felt that Powell’s speech had done the job. In addition to selling the war on false pretenses, it also had a disastrous unintended consequence: Powell made 21 mentions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling him the link between Hussein and the Al-Qaeda network that had plotted the 9/11 attacks. In reality, the term Al-Qaeda had not been used by any of its alleged members until after 9/11; it was, in fact, a loose network of likeminded radicals that only congealed into a distinct organization after the United States targeted it. Likewise, Zarqawi had had only fleeting contact with the network before Powell’s speech. After the speech, however, Zarqawi began to amass a stronger following within Iraq, where he became a notorious insurgent leader and greatly escalated the guerrilla war against the United States into an all-out sectarian conflict.


WikiLeaks publishes the first documents leaked by Chelsea Manning

Month Day
February 18

On February 18, 2010, a relatively obscure website called WikiLeaks publishes a leaked diplomatic cable detailing discussions between American diplomats and Icelandic government officials. The leak of “Reikjavik13” barely registered with the public, but it was the first of what turned out to be nearly 750,000 sensitive documents sent to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning. Manning is now considered one of the most prolific and significant whistleblowers in American history, as her leaks shed light on atrocities committed by American armed forces, painted a far grimmer picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and greatly embarrassed the United States’ diplomatic establishment.

Manning, an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, was deployed to Iraq in October of 2009. Her job gave her access to all manner of classified and sensitive information from various organs of state. On January 5th, 2010, she began downloading massive amounts of material, starting with 400,000 documents pertaining to the Iraq War. Manning put the information on a CD marked “Lady Gaga” in order to smuggle it home and upload it to her personal computer. On leave in the United States, she shopped the information to both The New York Times and The Washington Post but neither took an interest. She began sending material to WikiLeaks in early February, but again got no response.

Then, on February 18, Manning sent WikiLeaks the cable known as “Reykjavik13.” The site published it within hours. Manning later said that she felt the cable depicted the U.S. government “bullying” the government of Iceland, and hoped that the leak would put pressure on the U.S. to lend economic assistance. The incident would have been a tiny historical footnote if not for the leaks that followed. Throughout the spring of 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of documents leaked by Manning, oftentimes via The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian

The diplomatic cables contained frank discussions of policy and American descriptions of foreign leaders, many of whom found cause to be offended, but other leaks revealed shocking truths about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning and WikiLeaks released multiple accounts and even videos of U.S. airstrikes that killed civilians, and the information they disclosed led watchdogs to estimate that American armed forces were responsible for over 10,000 more civilian deaths than they had officially acknowledged. As a whole, the leaks showed that the wars were not only going much worse than the government led the populace to believe, but that the scope of the humanitarian disaster was larger as well.

Manning was arrested in May of 2010 and was eventually sentenced to 35 years in military prison, which many called an extremely harsh sentence for a whistleblower. President Barack Obama stopped short of pardoning her but commuted her sentence in January of 2017, just three days before leaving office. She received international acclaim from free speech and anti-war activists, and is now known as a one of the most significant whistleblowers in U.S. history.

READ MORE: The United States Began Protecting Whistleblowers in 1777


Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Month Day
August 08

On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Sotomayor’s mother was an orphan from rural Puerto Rico. Her father had a third-grade education, did not speak English, and died when Sotomayor was 9 years old. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx and claims that watching the CBS legal drama Perry Mason in her youth led her to aspire to a career as a judge. She received a scholarship to attend Princeton University, where she advocated strongly on behalf of the school’s underserved minority communities, and received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

READ MORE: How Sonia Sotomayor Overcame Adversity to Become the United States’ First Hispanic and Latina Justice

Sotomayor spent much of her career in private practice but also served on the board of the New York State Mortgage Agency, where she became a vocal proponent of affordable housing and frequently called attention to the effects of gentrification. She also served on the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1991, Republican President George H.W. Bush fulfilled her childhood dream by nominating her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Six years later, she was confirmed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Over the course of her judicial career, she issued an injunction that ended the 1994 Major League Baseball strike in favor of the players, sided with an employee of the New York Police Department who had been fired for sending racist materials through the mail, and gained a reputation for dealing bluntly with the lawyers who argued before her.

Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice nominated by President Barack Obama, who had taken office the previous January. The choice of a Hispanic woman by the nation’s first non-white president led to a backlash that set the tone for her confirmation hearings. In particular, a comment she had made in 2001 about “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences” being a better-qualified than being “a white male who hasn’t lived that life” rankled her opponents. Nearly every Republican on the Senate Judicial Committee—all of whom were white men—brought up the comment during their questioning, while pundits speculated about Sotomayor’s impartiality and even accused her of being racist. Nonetheless, she was easily confirmed by a Democratic majority and nine of the Senate’s 40 Republicans.

In addition to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor was the third woman named to the bench. The following year, Justice Elena Kagan would become the fourth. Since her appointment, Sotomayor has been notable for her forceful dissent in several cases regarding racial discrimination, as well as siding with the majority in a 5-4 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act.


The Equal Educational Opportunities Act takes effect

Month Day
August 21

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act takes effect on August 21, 1974. The new law addressed civil rights issues in education, barring states from discriminating against students based on gender, race, color, or nationality and requiring public schools to provide for students who do not speak English.

In many ways, the EEOA was an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in schools as well as businesses and outlawed the segregation of schools. The Civil Rights Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, but it did not singlehandedly put a stop to discrimination in public education. Aside from the famous “Massive Resistance” campaign against desegregation in the South, schools continued to fail racial minorities and students for whom English was not their first language.

The EEOA mandated that schools accommodate students regardless of nationality and that they provide adequate resources for students who did not speak English. In effect, this meant that schools must now offer both English classes for non-native speakers and classes in other subjects taught in students’ native languages. Subsequent Supreme Court cases clarified the full extent of the law. In 1974, the Court ruled that the EEOA mandated that schools offer classes in students’ first languages while they learned English as a second language. In 1982, it ruled that, based on the EEOA, undocumented students not only had the right to attend public schools but were obligated to do so, the same as all American children.

Thanks to the EEOA, schools across the country now offer classes in languages other than English, in addition to teaching English to non-native speakers. The act also provided legal recourse for students facing discrimination in public schools, greatly bolstering the progress that was made during the Civil Rights Era.

READ MORE: The Mendez Family Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed


Douglas Wilder of Virginia becomes the nation’s first African American governor

Month Day
January 13

Douglas Wilder, the first African American to be elected governor of an American state, takes office as Governor of Virginia on January 13, 1990. Wilder broke a number of color barriers in Virginia politics and remains an enduring and controversial figure in the state’s political scene.

Born in 1931 in Church Hill, a poor and segregated neighborhood of Richmond, Wilder is the grandson of slaves and is named for Frederick Douglass. He grew up in the Jim Crow era, graduating from Richmond’s Virginia Union University in 1951. Wilder fought in the Korean War, earning the Bronze Star, before studying law at Howard University and returning to Richmond to practice.

Wilder entered politics by way of a special election to the State Senate in 1969, becoming the state’s first African American state senator since Reconstruction. A Democrat, he developed a reputation for taking on other members of his party. In 1982, he threatened to run for Senate as an independent after the presumptive Democratic nominee gave a speech praising the Byrd Organization, the powerful and formerly pro-segregation political machine that had long dominated the Virginia Democratic Party. In 1986, Wilder became the first African American to win a statewide election in Virginia when he was elected Lieutenant Governor. Four years later, in an extremely narrow race that triggered an automatic recount, he was elected Governor.

Some political scientists have speculated that the race was unexpectedly close due to the “Bradley Effect,” the effect on polls of racist voters lying about their willingness to vote for non-white candidates. Though Republicans had painted him as a liberal due to his pro-choice stance on abortion, Wilder governed as a “tough on crime” centrist. Bills aimed at reducing crime and gun violence, as well as infrastructure spending in the rapidly expanding suburbs of Northern Virginia, were hallmarks of his tenure. Wilder also divested all state institutions from the apartheid government of South Africa, making it the first Southern state to do so.

Virginia law prohibits governors from running for re-election, but Wilder remained active in state politics. In the 2000s, he was one of the leaders of a movement to directly elect the Mayor of Richmond—at the time, the City Council chose one of its members to serve as mayor. In 2003, an overwhelming majority of Richmonders approved the direct-election measure, and Wilder was elected mayor the following year with 79 percent of the vote. Wilder supported then-Senator Barack Obama‘s first run for president, although he declined to endorse him in 2012. Since leaving office in 2008, Wilder has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of public affairs, which is named for him, and has worked to establish museums and memorials in remembrance of slavery.


U.S. Surgeon General announces definitive link between smoking and cancer

United States Surgeon General Luther Terry knew his report was a bombshell. He intentionally chose to release it on January 11, 1964, a Saturday, so as to limit its immediate effects on the stock market. It was on this date that, on behalf of the U.S. Government, Terry announced a definitive link between smoking and cancer.

The link had long been suspected. Anecdotal evidence had always pointed to negative health effects from smoking, and by the 1930s physicians were noticing an increase in lung cancer cases. The first medical studies that raised serious concerns were published in Great Britain in the late 1940s. 

American cigarette companies spent much of the next decade lobbying the government to keep smoking legal and advertising reduced levels of tar and nicotine in their products. 44 percent of Americans already believed smoking caused cancer by 1958, and a number of medical associations warned that tobacco use was linked with both lung and heart disease. Despite all this, nearly half of Americans smoked, and smoking was common in restaurants, bars, offices, and homes across the country.

Dr. Terry commissioned the report in 1962, and two years later he released the findings, titled Smoking and Health, which stated a conclusive link between smoking and heart and lung cancer in men. The report also stated the same link was likely true for women, although women smoked at lower rates and therefore not enough data was available.

The news was major, but hardly surprising—the New York Times reported the findings saying “it could hardly have been otherwise.” Still, the Surgeon General’s report was a major step in health officials’ crusade against smoking. Though tobacco companies spent millions and millions and were largely successful in fending off anti-smoking laws until the 1990s, studies have shown that the report increased the percentage of Americans who believed in the cancer link to 70 percent, and that smoking decreased by roughly 11 percent between 1965 and 1985. California became the first state to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces in 1995. 25 more states have now passed similar laws, including 50 of the 60 largest cities in America. In 2019, the Surgeon General announced a link between serious disease and e-cigarettes, an alternative to smoking in which traditional tobacco companies have invested heavily.

READ MORE: When Cigarette Companies Used Doctors to Promote Smoking


The North American Free Trade Agreement comes into effect

Month Day
January 01

On January 1, 1994, one of the largest and most significant trade pacts in world history comes into effect. The North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico removed most of the trade barriers between the three countries, but it has been controversial in all three since its inception.

Ronald Reagan was the first U.S. president to propose a trilateral free trade agreement between the nations of North America. His successor, George H.W. Bush, opened negotiations with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney later joined. The goal was to do away with most tariffs and barriers to the movement of people and products across the three countries’ borders. The debate over ratification of the treaty was heated in all three countries, with critics warning that it would have adverse affects on the ability of workers to organize and, as a result, depress wages. There were also environmental concerns, which were addressed by a side deal. All three nations ratified NAFTA in the end, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law on December 8, 1993. it took effect on New Year’s Day 1994.

The most immediate of all effects of NAFTA was a guerilla uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas. NAFTA had forced the Mexican government to remove an article from its constitution that protected communal indigenous lands from privatization, viewing it as an intolerable barrier to investment. Rather than assent to the potential selling-off of their lands, the mostly-indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up and occupied roughly half of Chiapas overnight, just as the treaty came into effect. The standoff with the Mexican government and de facto rule of the rebels continues to this day.

Since 1994, NAFTA has greatly increased the volume of trade between the three countries. Other effects are disputed, although many credit it with boosting industry in Mexico and small businesses in the United States, while critics often argue that it has hurt Mexican farmers and cost America jobs. In 2016, both Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who voted against ratification, made their criticism of NAFTA a major part of their campaigns.

Once in office, Trump forced a re-negotiation of NAFTA. The new arrangement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, is somewhat more protectionist and kinder to American industries, most notably pharmaceutical companies, but more or less continues NAFTA’s legacy of free trade. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the USMC trade agreement in December 2019. 


The U.S. national debt reaches $0 for the first time

Publish date:
Month Day
January 08

On January 8, 1835, President Andrew Jackson achieves his goal of entirely paying off the United States’ national debt. It was the only time in U.S. history that the national debt stood at zero, and it precipitated one of the worst financial crises in American history.

The elimination of the national debt was both a personal issue for Jackson and the culmination of a political project as old as the nation itself. Since the time of the Revolution, American politicians had argued over the wisdom of the nation carrying debt. After independence, the federal government agreed to take on individual states’ war debts as part of the unification of the former colonies. Federalists, those who favored a stronger central government, established a national bank and argued that debt could be a useful way of fueling the new country’s economy. Their opponents, most notably Thomas Jefferson, felt that these policies favored Northeastern elites at the expense of rural Americans and saw the debt as a source of national shame.

Jackson, a populist whose Democratic Party grew out of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, had a personal aversion to debt stemming from a land deal that had gone sour for him in his days as a speculator. Campaigning for re-election in 1832, Jackson vetoed the re-charter of the national bank and called the debt “a moral failing” and “black magic.” Jackson vetoed a number of spending bills throughout his tenure, putting an end to projects that would have expanded nationwide infrastructure. He further paid down the debt by selling off vast amounts of government land in the West, and was able to settle the debt entirely in 1835.

Jackson’s triumph contained the seeds of the economy’s undoing. The selling-off of federal lands had led to a real estate bubble, and the destruction of the national bank led to reckless spending and borrowing. Combined with other elements of Jackson’s fiscal policy as well as downturns in foreign economies, these problems led to the Panic of 1837. A bank run and the subsequent depression tanked the U.S. economy and forced the federal government to begin borrowing again.

The U.S. has been in debt ever since. The debt skyrocketed during the Civil War but was nearly paid off by the early 20th Century, only to balloon again with the onset of World War I. Numerous presidents and politicians have decried the debt and even pledged to do away with it, with conservatives and libertarians frequently echoing Jackson. Nevertheless, with the debt now surpassing $22 trillion, it is unlikely that the events of 1835 will be repeated in the foreseeable future.